April 19, 2010

The Brides of Frankenstein

It’s difficult to image anyone but Elsa Lanchester as The Bride, yet a number of actresses were reportedly considered for the part. In profile above: Brigitte Helm, Louise Brooks, Phyllis Brooks, Arletta Duncan, and Elsa.

Director James Whale first suggested the formidable Brigitte Helm, who had played such characters as Maria and her unforgettable Robot alter ego in Metropolis (1927), Atenia, the Queen of Atlantis (1932), and the “unnatural” Alraune (1928 and 1932), a mad geneticist’s test-tube creation. The glacial Helm would have made a stunning Bride, but the actress refused the role. What’s more, the same year, 1935, Helm abruptly quit making films and fled Germany to Switzerland, in disgust over the Nazi regime.

Another iconic actress often mentioned as a potential Bride is Louise Brooks, the incandescent star of Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, both made in 1929. One wonders if The Bride would have traded her beehive hairdo for Brooks’ famous flapper bob, but this casting call is possibly a misunderstanding, with another Miss Brooks, Phyllis, being the one actually considered.

Phyllis Brooks, a former model, was a regal B-Movie actress and socialite who was, for a time, engaged to Cary Grant. In June 1939, famous gossip columnist Louella Parson, tongue firmly in cheek, wrote, “Cary Grant was in a gay mood today... he and Phyllis Brooks have made up their minds to marry.

Brooks would eventually wed Congressman Tobert MacDonald, a close friend and confidant to John F. Kennedy. Her last showbiz gig was hosting the first television interview show to be broadcast in Boston.

The third actress penciled in as The Bride was Arletta Duncan who, interestingly, had made her film debut (see frame grab below) in the 1931 Frankenstein as one of the four identically-dressed bridesmaids who fret about Mae Clarke’s Elizabeth, in a dead faint after a close encounter with Karloff’s Monster. Duncan had earned a movie tryout after winning a radio station’s “most beautiful girl in New Orleans” contest.

Only 16 when Frankenstein was shot, Duncan, hailed as “Universal’s Youngest Player”, was trotted out to golf courses and soirées for photo ops and gossip fodder. “She has studied at Universal’s ‘little red schoolhouse’” a studio promo piece read, “and is being carefully trained for a brilliant future.” It didn’t pan out. Duncan was out of movies by 1937, after scoring minor roles in eleven films. Her most curious claim to fame came when she was mistakenly identified in Kenneth Anger’s notorious Hollywood Babylon tell-all book as the starlet who had taken a suicide jump off the Hollywood sign in 1938. In reality, Miss Duncan passed away quietly in 1985.

James Whale ultimately chose Elsa Lanchester for his Monster Bride. She’d already been cast as Mary Shelley in the film’s prologue and it made perfect, perverse sense to have the same actress play both roles.

Incidentally, the film’s other Bride, of the non-monstrous variety, was Valerie Hobson, then all of 18 years old, cast as Frankenstein’s long-suffering better half, Elizabeth. She is kidnapped by The Monster and held hostage by the nefarious Dr. Pretorius against Frankenstein’s compliance in assembling The Monster’s mate.

It has been suggested that the most logical and dramatic source for the final puzzle piece of the monster-making process, the ever-important “fresh” heart, would be Elizabeth. This would explain, in a sense, why the newly galvanized Bride turns sharply away from her intended and lunges into the safety of Frankenstein’s arms. Though there is evidence that Frankenstein (Colin Clive) was meant to perish in the final conflagration, there is none supporting Elizabeth as a transplant donor and, surely, the studio would not have allowed her such a gruesome fate.

In the end, the Frankensteins are sent away by the unrequited Monster just before he blows himself, his recalcitrant Bride and mad doctor Pretorius to kingdom come.

A profile of Elsa Lanchester
A profile of Valerie Hobson


Martin Powell said...

Fabulous info and photos. I've never seen that picture of Elsa before. Fascinating shot.

Anonymous said...

You've blown me away once again. Excellent piece!

John Rozum said...

I echo what Martin said. I've never seen that photo either. Nice post, and I particularly like the row of profiles. I was imagining the hair and make-up on each of them in turn. I think Brigitte Helm would have made a good bride but I'm glad we got Elsa.

Arbogast said...

Incomparable, Pierre... incomparable.

Jack Ruttan said...

A late aunt of mine (once removed) married Boris Karloff. Does she limackcount?

Pierre Fournier said...

Thanks so much, everyone. I love that young Elsa pic, but I forget where it came from. Always thought it had a "1984" vibe to it.

Jack: What was your aunt's name? And don't say "Mrs. Karloff"!

Christopher said...

another stunning Elsa foto you may have missed.

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